The Vatican won’t be winning a Best Places to Work award any time soon. At least according to Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was released as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this summer. He has claimed that curial officials are “living in great fear”. “If they say one small or harmless critical word,” he told an interviewer last week, “some spies will pass the comments directly to the Holy Father, and the falsely accused people don’t have any chance to defend themselves.”

The cardinal’s comments came shortly after Libero Milone, the ex-Vatican auditor general, broke his silence over his departure in June. Milone alleged that he was forced out by an “old guard” which panicked when it realised what he had uncovered.

We should, of course, be cautious about the testimonies of aggrieved former Vatican employees: they may have an interest in depicting the Vatican as a snake pit. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. How could the Holy See still be a den of gossip and financial intrigue after four years of energetic reform by Pope Francis?

The answer is that, despite piecemeal changes, the Roman Curia remains essentially the same as it was at Francis’s election in 2013. The Council of Cardinals has been preparing a total overhaul of the Curia since it was founded that year. But it has discovered how hard it is to turn one of the world’s oldest bureaucracies into a modern administration serving a global body of more than a billion people.

The task is so complex that the last big shake-up was in the 1960s, when Paul VI reorganised Vatican departments. Neither of Francis’s immediate predecessors were overly preoccupied with curial reform. Instead, John Paul II poured his energy largely into missionary journeys and Benedict XVI into teaching the flock. It is to Francis’s credit that he is tackling the Curia when he would clearly rather spend the time outside Vatican walls.

Bishop Marcello Semeraro, secretary of the Council of Cardinals, says the long-awaited blueprint for reform is almost ready. But expectations are perhaps too high: the cardinals are likely to recommend gradual change, rather than a “shock and awe” approach. In a few years the Vatican may be more streamlined, but it is unlikely to have eliminated its besetting sins. The reason is that the Curia is, at heart, a kind of royal court (the meaning of curia in Latin). Gossip and intrigue are in its DNA. Even if a pope were to shut down the Curia and create a new one in, say, Nairobi, it would soon take on the character of a court, with officials jostling for the papal ear.

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